The Island Packet: Mike Wanchic Interview / Johnny Mercer Theatre Preview
After nearly four decades as John Mellencamp's lead guitarist, Mike Wanchic says he wouldn't go back and do a single thing differently.
Such a resolute attitude is fitting for a band that has long since given up chasing radio hits in favor of writing and playing music on its own terms.
On his latest "Plain Spoken" tour, Mellencamp and his band have designed a set that delves deep into their song catalogue for what they consider to be their most important work, radio hits be damned.
Mellencamp will play at Savannah's Johnny Mercer Theatre on Friday.
"It's so simple when you've been a band as long as we have to put together a string of hits. But after 22 albums, we have so many beautiful songs. So this tour is designed around what we consider to be our best songs," Wanchic said. "There are hits in there no doubt, but there are all kinds of variation in the music. There's acoustic music and songs that some folks are not going to be familiar with that are some of the finest songs we've ever written."
"The Voice of the Heartland" has always been lauded for his candid songwriting, dating back to 1980s when he rose to superstardom with singles "Jack & Diane," "Hurt So Good," and "Pink Houses." His latest album has the same "gruff directness," Billboard reviewed.
The difference is that the band now has the clout to dictate what it wants to do and when, and is generally left to its own devices by record companies.
"I don't give a [expletive] what everybody else is doing!" Mellencamp told Esquire last year. "I don't care. What do we care? I spent my entire life trying not to be like everybody else."
Before the group stops in Savannah, we spoke with Wanchic about first meeting Mellencamp in 1976, the "encouraging" demise of record companies, and how the band has leveraged not caring about what others are doing in order to withstand the test of time.
Question. How old were you when you first met John Mellencamp?
Wanchic. I was in my early 20s.
Q. What was your first impression of him?
Wanchic. He was a wild man. On first meeting, he was like this rough-cut, wild, obviously very talented person. I don't know if I can credit myself with this -- I like to think I can -- but I knew immediately this guy was a star. As undeveloped and rough-edged as it was, people sometimes just have something.
Q. Have you noticed any differences between the audiences you play for now? Has the energy changed over the years at all?
Wanchic. I think the crowds are equally excited. A lot of the fans who come to see us at this stage in our career are real fans, not laissez faire fans. So there's a deeper appreciation for the deeper catalogue.
Q. Would you say part of your success has to do with not minding what other groups are doing and staying the course musically?
Wanchic. Exactly. That's why we stayed in Bloomington, Ind. We had our moment where we could have moved to Los Angeles -- we were encouraged by the record company to do it. But we would have landed right in the middle of the hair glam band scene in L.A. What would that have had to do with us? Being able to create the music we have in isolation has allowed us to be much less influenced by our contemporaries. I think that's been vitally important to not follow the herd mentality.
Q. What do you think you'd be doing if you hadn't met John?
Wanchic. I'd probably be a Southern gentleman on a tobacco plantation. That's what my family's business was.
Q. What do you think his music would sound like if he hadn't met you?
Wanchic. It's hard to say. What he and I have done musically is magnify each other's strong points. We're similar in age and musical background. I grew up in Lexington, Ky., he grew up in Seymour, Ind. There was radio station in Louisville that we both listened to all the time. It was early exposure to Motown and early rock and Brit rock. So when he and I met, we had a very similar language. There was a real easy music communication. He'd say, "Make it sound like a Motown beat and throw some Young Rascals on it," and I'd know exactly what he meant.
Q. What young artists are you liking right now?
Wanchic. I like everything from My Morning Jacket to Cage the Elephant. There's wonderful music out there right now. The thing that's encouraging is the demise of the major record companies. I say that because new layers of talent are allowed to emerge that earlier would not have been able to do so because it didn't fit the exact mold of a given record company. For me that makes for a healthier, more robust music scene. It allows a lot of people to have dignity and grace and play the music that they way want to play for people without outside input from a record company.
Q. If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Wanchic. To do exactly what I've done and stick it all the way to the very end. This is a business that most people don't ever really prevail in long-term. We've managed to do something that virtually no one has done. We have managed to survive time.